There’s no better show in rock than Keith Richards on stage, Telecaster slung over his shoulder, legs spread, wielding his power and influence over the Rolling Stones.
It’s a spectacle that has thrilled countless millions for six decades. At the center of it all are the riffs – riffs that have defined the Stones’ sound since they burst onto the scene in the early 1960s.
From funk/soul licks to powerful chords, Keith has consistently lived up to his legacy, delivering classic after classic across the Stones catalog. Here are ten of the best examples of why Keith Richards remains the original “human riff”.
The Last Time (1965)
This UK number one single released in early 1965 heralded the golden age of the Stones 45 rpm – it was also the first A-side written by Jagger/Richard. It’s driven by an incessant riff from Keith that never stops. Coupled with the repeated title line, it carries a hypnotic quality of its own.
(I Can’t Say No) Satisfaction (1965)
The almost full-bodied riff came courtesy of a newly arrived fuzz tone pedal. It rings loud and clear throughout this anthemic single of pent-up angst. Keith revealed that he woke up in the middle of the night to this riff sequence and quickly recorded it to tape. It was later developed in a session at RCA’s Hollywood Studios. The soulful, Stax-influenced side of the riff lent itself perfectly to an impressive cover version by Otis Redding.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1968)
After having dabbled in psychedelia with Request from Their Satanic Majesties, the Stones got back to doing what they do best, which is crass rock ‘n’ roll. It’s an archetypal Keith riff that marks his authority from the start. Jump Jack Flash It was adopted as a suitably incendiary open set on their 1969 return tour of the United States – as seen in this clip filmed at Madison Square Garden. Moreover, the sentence Jumping-Jack is derived from a comment Keith made about his gardener at the time, Jack Dyer.
Honky Tonk Women (1969)
Their first single after the band’s departure and the sad demise of Brian Jones, this worldwide hit from the summer of 1969 boasts one of the greatest intros of all time. From Charlie Watts’ measured back beat to Keith’s slow-burning chords to that gorgeous spinning riff, it’s a masterclass in Stones musical economy – nothing is overplayed or out of place. As a bonus, Keith sings with all his heart while sharing the chorus with Mick.
Brown Sugar (1971 single)
From the two-note intro to the outgoing solo and ‘whoo whoo yeah’ vocal chorus, it’s a Stones classic and another career high. Note the subtle deployment of an acoustic guitar behind the main riff. The lyrical theme might now be frowned upon, but in 1971 that didn’t stop this first single on their own label from racking up massive sales and airplay. As the opening track on sticky fingers it also set the bar very high for one of their best albums.
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (1971)
Keith kicks long sticky fingers opus in speed via a stuttered riff in the now familiar open G tuning. From there, he supports Jagger’s vocals with every twist. Eventually, it all drifts into a golden sunset via spontaneous jamming as Keith hands over the limelight to saxophonist Bobby Keys and fellow guitarist Mick Taylor – the latter delivering a solo of immense Santana-esque quality.
All on the Line (1972)
Exile on the main street was a total triumph for Keith and, alongside his vocal showcase happy, this track is one of the highlights. Led by another haunting riff and undermined by Mick Taylor’s booming slide work, the brass interjections further accentuate the riff’s sheer power.
Dancing with Mr D (1973)
The riff’s quirky lurch and the way Mick breathes and sighs through the slightly satanic lyrics lights up another successful Glimmer Twins production — oh, and, “Charlie okay tonight, inee?”
Hey Negrita (1976)
After the departure of Mick Taylor, Ronnie Wood has always been the ideal candidate for the Stones and a perfect partner in crime for Keith. At Black and blue’Opening the second side, the pair are preparing a real funk storm with a nod to The Meters and the sound of New Orleans.
Start Me Up (1981)
This contagious rock recorded during the 1977/78 season Certain girls the sessions started life in a reggae style. It was then rejuvenated by another classic Keith riff. At the time, Keith felt it was a bit too close to brown sugar and it was then left in the box. Three years later, it took engineer Chris Kimsey to show Keith his mistake as he was looking for material for the 1981 tattoo yourself Album. The final result ? An opening riff of fierce intent and yet another classic Keith Stones performance.